A Doctor’s Death Causes Black Professionals to Flee
First Avenue was a mecca for Columbus’s black professionals during the early twentieth century. Offices of black doctors, pharmacists, dentists and other white collar businessmen thrived on this street, including the office of Dr. Thomas H. Brewer. He was a well-to-do physician and an outspoken advocate for civil rights. Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP, described him as a “fearless champion of the rights of his people,” and his controversial legacy is still revered in Columbus today.
Although Dr. Brewer was born in Saco, Alabama, he considered Columbus his home and worked diligently to expand opportunities for African Americans in the community. In 1929, he formed the Social Civic 25 Club made up of Columbus’s unusually large population of black doctors and dentists. The exact number of these professionals is unknown, but a few names include Drs. Grant, McCoo, Strickland, Coffee, Haskins, Malone, Cobb, and Odom. In 1939, Dr. Brewer founded Columbus’s chapter of the NAACP and raised support for the Primus E. King case in 1945 and 1946. He was a staunch supporter of the revolutionary Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954 and used his highly respected status in the community to work towards integration efforts in Columbus’s social environment. He worked with his fellow black doctors to create opportunities for black nurses and policemen and to develop an array of social clubs for African Americans. Affectionately called “chief” by his colleagues, Dr. Brewer was not only the most radical black doctor in Columbus but also the wealthiest.
Due to his large influence both politically and socially, Dr. Brewer was a constant victim of terrorism. During the 1946 gubernatorial election, Rev. E.G. “Parson Jack” Johnston, a local Klan member, sent Dr. Brewer death threats because of Brewer’s support of African American voting rights. The Ku Klux Klan selected Dr. Brewer as a target, and his connection with the NAACP also made him susceptible to threats from segregationist groups such as the White Citizens Council. In order to protect himself from imminent violence, Dr. Brewer carried a pistol in his pocket on a daily basis. This precautionary habit would eventually work against him on the day of his shocking death.
Ten years later, on February 18, 1956, Dr. Brewer approached Lucio Flowers, owner of the F&B Department Store, regarding an event that they had both witnessed on First Avenue. About ten days earlier, Flowers and Brewer saw a white policemen named R.L. Cannon brutally arrest Sylvester Henderson, a black man. Dr. Brewer wanted Flowers to help him testify about this sequence of events. Flowers refused, and claiming that he would return, an angry Dr. Brewer left the store. When Dr. Brewer returned, he allegedly reached into his pocket when he began to confront Flowers. Assuming that Dr. Brewer was trying to hurt him, Flowers immediately shot the doctor seven times with a small-caliber pistol, piercing his left arm, chest, and head. Flowers claimed self-defense, although it was never confirmed if the doctor actually reached into the same pocket that held his pistol. Much to the consternation of many African Americans, Flower was never tried. He was found dead one year later outside of First Avenue’s Old Dixie Theater on February 11, 1956. Although there was much speculation into the cause of Flowers’ mysterious death, most believe that he committed suicide due to financial troubles.
Dr. Brewer’s death had large effects on the black and white communities of Columbus. Many African Americans were upset because Flowers was not charged with a murder or brought to trial. Others were happy to see closure to the Flowers affair, even though they too were upset by Brewer’s death. Many whites believed that the most dangerous African American in Columbus had been eliminated. In spite of the wide range of emotions, over 2500 mourners attended Dr. Brewer’s funeral at the First African Baptist Church, and many recognized him as a martyr for civil rights.
By far, the most drastic consequence was the exodus of many black professionals from the city. The exact number who left is unknown, because many moved out of their homes during the night or without telling others. Among the departed were Drs. McCoo, Haskins, and Strickland, along with Stanley Herbert (a lawyer), and the remaining Brewer family. Many of these professionals believed that if Dr. Brewer could be killed, so could they. A combination of Dr. Brewer’s death and the exodus of influential black families led to a lull of civil rights activism in Columbus. According to Stephen Tuck, author of Beyond Atlanta: The Struggle for Racial Equality in Georgia 1940-1980 (2001), “by the 1960s, there was little legacy left of Brewer’s leadership and activism of the 1940s” (144). However, these events did not end the struggle for racial equality in the city.
Although many blacks did remain in Columbus, throughout the twentieth-century some counties have prohibited African Americans altogether. According to the historian James W. Loewen, author of Sundown Towns (2005), such counties have populations that are all-white due to racism and fear (47). These towns obtain their names from notorious signs that often read “Nigger, don’t let the sun set on you in this town” (65). Most sundown towns result from a complete expulsion of African Americans from the area, such as the forced departure of all African Americans from Forsyth County, Georgia, in September of 1912. After an alleged rape of a white woman by three black men, all African Americans were immediately forced to leave. At least one of the alleged attackers was lynched, and not until the 1980s did many blacks dare reside again in Forsyth County. However, in January of 1987, the county reached a turning point in its history. Hosea Williams, a former SCLC leader and politician, led two marches commemorating the racial progress that had taken place in the area. Both blacks and whites participated in these marches, and their demonstrations for racial tolerance gained national attention.
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1. The 1987 marches in Forsyth County were meant to demonstrate racial progress and tolerance. However, hurling insults and throwing broken bottles, local Ku Klux Klan members arrived as counter-demonstrators during the marches. Do you think that this conflict as a sign of progress or statis?
2. Study the history of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. How do counties, cities, or even countries learn to forgive their enemies and accept each other after decades of hate?
3. Sundown towns existed all over the United States, not just in the South. Research the history of sundown towns in your region of the country. Do you know of any sundown towns in your state? Has anything been done to integrate these towns? Why or why not?
4. Read the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution and also read Gandhi’s work entitled “The Power of Nonviolence.” During the era of Jim Crow, the idea of black men bearing arms might have inspired fear or other anxieties among white Americans. Discuss what it meant for Dr. Brewer to carry a pistol in the 1950s. Was his decision to do so compatible with his role as a civil rights activist? Why or why not?
Take it to the Streets!
Activity: Find a building or business in your county owned by a nonwhite person that dates back to at least 1940. Interview the owner(s). What does the history of this building tell us about American attitudes towards race?
Writer: JoyEllen Freeman
and Researchers: JoyEllen Freeman
Site Designer: William Weems